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Resilience is trending, but journalists don’t always get it right

Resilience is trending, but journalists don’t always get it right

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In an era when childhood trauma, toxic stress and grit are the leading buzzwords in children’s health circles, “resilience” is often trotted out as the answer to whatever horrible events people — young or old — have endured. Prevention is always king, the thinking goes, but when misery has already come to pass, building up resilience is our best bet for giving trauma victims a chance to move beyond their misfortune and live healthy, productive lives.

Except that the knotty concept of resilience is rarely so simple, the narrative never so pat, as we might be tempted to believe from reading issue briefs or bootstrap stories in the media. That point was driven home repeatedly by psychiatrist Glenda Wrenn and foster youth advocate Johnny Madrid in a panel on the role of resilience at this week’s 2016 National Fellowship. In very different ways, the two speakers emphasized that real stories of resilience are almost always more complex than suggested by popular accounts.

But first, it helps to have a working definition of resilience. Wrenn, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, defines it as “the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenge as well as bounce back in the face of adversity.”

One of Wrenn’s messages, however, is that resilience isn’t a fixed characteristic of a person. Instead she speaks of “real-time resilience,” which ebbs and flows according to the vagaries of a person’s daily life. “Thinking about how you can acknowledge that reality I think is beneficial to the truth of the story, but also to the person,” she told journalists. 

As an example, Wrenn pointed to recent comments made by Cameron Sterling, whose father was fatally shot by Baton Rouge police earlier this month. “It’s amazing to see him speak so articulately about things outside of himself in society,” Wrenn said. “He’s done a lot of good for everyone else to try to work through their feelings on this. But I bet if you were in his life you would see moments where he’s not that person — he’s really struggling and mourning and grieving. That doesn’t make him any less of a resilient person, but we need to be careful when we communicate that narrative about him.”

But stories of resilience don’t always registers those shadow moments. Johnny Madrid would know. After a car fatally struck his mom when he was 11, Madrid was shunted among 19 different homes, mostly through foster care, while growing up. His childhood was marked by abuse coupled with chronic feelings of rejection, shame and loneliness. Even so, he went on to graduate from Stanford University and worked for Wall Street firms for nearly a decade. While he now works as a consultant for the advocacy group Foster Youth in Action, he shared his ongoing struggles to get up in the morning, cope with paralyzing emotions and maintain his sense of self worth. (Listen to his story in his own words here.)

“Survival is not pretty. Survival is ugly,” Madrid told journalists this week. “You guys don’t write in your stories about what it really looks like getting out of bed.”

Those kinds of behind-the-scenes moments are among the reasons Wrenn cautions journalists to think of resilience not as an outcome — finishing high school, going to Stanford, landing a job on Wall Street and so on — but as a process. 

“You might see that process on display in one person at one point in time, and then catch that person at another point in time, and you do not see those aspects of resilience in the same way,” Wrenn said. “Does that mean the person is not a resilient person? I’d say, no, they’re still resilient, but you walk yourself into that difficulty when you’re thinking about it only as an outcome.”

The idea of resilience as a work-in-progress resonates with Madrid.

“It is an irony for me when people call me a success story, when people say, ‘Johnny, you’ve done great, you went to Stanford and worked at Goldman,” he said. “To me, I don’t feel like a success story. I don’t identify with outcomes. I feel like I’m constantly fighting to survive, or to be a better human.”

That lived complexity poses real challenges for journalists seeking to tell emotionally honest stories. Wrenn stressed the importance of listening without judgment, but also sounded a note of caution about what she called “bleeding heart” trauma narratives.

“The bleeding heart is not helping anyone,” Wrenn said. She added: “If you let a person tell their own story, you’re usually good. If you give them the power and give them their own voice, I always would prefer that rather than to try to retell someone else’s story.”

Madrid’s remarkably candid account of his ongoing daily struggles helped illustrate another of Wrenn’s provisos for storytellers.

“You have to be vigilant about that tendency as a storyteller to want to put a nice bow on an ending of a story,” Wrenn said. “I think there’s some caution that needs to be involved in how you end your story, leaving space for the resilient process to continue, including the highs and lows that will come.”

That means making space in stories for the messiness and complexity of actual lives marked by adversity, resilience and all the waypoints in between.

“The more we can get those real narratives out there, the more we can move beyond simplistic ways of thinking,” Wrenn said.

[Photo by Daniel Lobo via Flickr.]




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Thank you. Very important piece of information. It's simply not as "simple" as it sounds.

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Your story was so touching, and insightful. So sorry for all the pain you had to endure as a child and thankful that you have people in your life now that care about you so much. Thank you for sharing.

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